We should be assessing our middle school and high school singers. Math teachers assess their students based on their performance of math equations. English teachers assess their students based on language development, reading comprehension, and essay writing.
While written assessments can be an effective tool in the choral classroom, they do not replace the need for performance assessments; after all, choir is a performance-based class.
Many singers, especially singers in self-selected or open-enrollment ensembles are afraid to sing by themselves; while we can recognize these fears, it shouldn’t deter us from assessing our singers. With a healthy approach toward assessment, we can help our singers to overcome their fears and motivate them toward a higher level of achievement.
What is the purpose of a performance assessment?
The ultimate goal of a performance assessment is to make students aware of their current performance level and help motivate them to reach a higher level of achievement in the future.
Here are 8 Tips for Giving Performance Assessments in Choir
1. Help students become accustomed to the idea of singing by themselves
Singing alone should not feel like a punishment; it should just be standard operating procedure. It certainly doesn’t need to take place in front of the entire class, but it must take place. This can happen in small groups, after school in a one-on-one setting, or even through home-recording submissions, followed by feedback; there are programs such as Smart Music and Sight Reading Factory that provide the ability to send and receive homework assignments. Another approach would be requiring students to submit voice memo recordings straight from their phone. The more frequently students sing alone, the less anxiety they will have during a performance assessment.
2. Assess singers with the primary purpose of helping and motivating them
If we administer assessments that are geared toward recognizing what our singers are current achieving as well as what skills they can improve upon, they are likely to see the assessment as a tool for growth. On the other hand, if we give assessments as a means to formulate a permanent academic score, they may become fearful of our assessments and singing in front of us.
3. Score accurately, but make sure the scoring mechanism is student-friendly
Performance assessments should be an true depiction of how students are performing but this doesn’t mean the scoring needs to be harsh or range from 0-100.
The Solo Vocal Performance Rubric is intended to assess every aspect of how a student sings solo repertoire (folk songs, art songs, arias, Broadway, etc) while not damaging students who are not yet equipped to give a top-notch performance. This 100 point rubric evaluates 15 categories on a 1-5 point scale. 5 points recognizes the student has mastered a specific skill while 1 point acknowledges the student has not grasped the concept; similar to taking the SAT, every performer receives 25 points for taking the vocal assessment. In reality, a student begins with a score of 40 because they earn 1 point as a minimum in every category as well.
The Self-Assessment Rehearsal Participation Rubric that I will discuss later has 10 graded categories. Students score themselves in each category with 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 or 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The top score on each rubric is 10 “all of the time” and the lowest score is “rarely”. Recently I’ve switch to a daily/weekly self-assessment form in order to reinforce more consistent participation.
Rubrics should feel helpful and encouraging to the student and in no way come across as punitive.
4. Teach and reinforce the grading rubric prior to using it for an assessment
A rubric can help students gain self-awareness of their current achievement level as well as where they need to go. If we want this to happen, we can start by teaching our singers how to prepare for any assessment. This allows students to know exactly what we are expecting from them and could help them to practice more effectively.
Just recently, I was observed by a supervisor for my bi-annual observation. After the observation, we sat in his office and he showed me how I scored in each category using a brand new teacher-evaluation rubric. I found it fascinating that I wasn’t privy to this rubric prior to my observation. Had I known what was going to be assessed, I may have prepared my lesson differently.
In class, I use a Self-Assessment Rehearsal Participation Rubric to assess each individual. I don’t just pull it out at the end of the marking quarter and grade them. The assessment is handed out to them on the first week of classes. Explain expectation is explained. I also demonstrate how they should hold their music when singing, how to sit properly when singing, etc. We reinforce these skills throughout the year. Periodically, I hand out the rubric to help students become self-aware of their participation choices.
This approach is slightly different from when I’m preparing students to sing solo repertoire. When I first teach a solo, I do not use a rubric. Once the piece is fully learned and memorized, we shift toward using a Solo Vocal Performance Rubric. This is when details become clearly defined.
5. Recognize progress over results
Students should feel encouraged by an assessment. If weaker performers feel discouraged as a result of their performance assessment, they are likely to gain a negative attitude and/or drop out of our program. A well-constructed and well-administered performance assessments can motivate singers toward their next level of success.
6. Assess sight-singing with endless tries
Smart Music allows the option for students to complete assignments over and over again; on each take they receive a computer-graded score. Students can see a tangible result and continue to attempt each assignment over and over again until they are happy with their score. They could also benefit similarly from submitting a voice memo or FlipGrid submission.
Students who are unsuccessful with sight-singing at first are usually lacking the fundamental sight-singing skills; this is why I use a Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric in tandem with Sight Reading Factory in my classroom. As their skills and confidence develop, their home practice improves, and the performance assessments become a positive tool.
7. Teach solo repertoire in the classroom and assess students using a familiar and consistent rubric
Teaching solo repertoire is an effective way to get all singers in an ensemble to technically and musically improve. When all members learn to sing as soloists, they improve their range, flexibility, tone, phrase shapes, language skills, overall musicality, and stage presence. By investing rehearsal time into teaching standard solo repertoire, students will likely by motivated to practice those pieces on their own.
Using a well-written Solo Vocal Performance Rubric that is taught in class prior to an evaluation and used to gain continuous self-awareness, will further motivate students toward improvement. Our goal is to create a positive atmosphere with confident singers who sing out; students who have specific, tangible goals are more likely to improve.
8. Grade on a curve
Students should receive accurate grades according to any rubric because this provides a clear-cut understanding of their strengths and current weaknesses; this doesn’t mean we should use those scored grades to directly impact their academic class grade.
If students are self-aware, self-motivated, and believe the rubric and our administering of a rubric is intended to help them, they will give their very best effort most of the time. The academic grade we give is one that can recognize their effort toward growth.
Let’s say, for example, a developing singer has struggled to match pitch and has effectively worked to improve throughout the year. Using the vocal assessment, they may earn a score of 75/100 (25 points for participation with 5/5 points full in categories such as rhythm, body alignment, diction, and 2/5 or 3/5 points in categories such as breath support, tone, etc.) Even though they earned a 75/100 on the rubric, it may not be the most reflective scoring for their vocal journey.
Perhaps we can set more positive parameters for academic purposes: students who earn a 90 or better on the vocal assessment will earn an academic score of 10/10, students who earn an 80-89 will receive an academic score of 9/10, and students who earn 65-79 will receive an academic score of 8/10.
Smart Music for Homework
For many years, my students were given a weekly Smart Music sight-singing assignment for homework. The website scored on a scale of 0-100. I converted a score of 80% or higher to 10/1o. Any student who put in the time in and made a concerted effort would receive 8/10 minimum, regardless of their earned score. As homework was only 10% of their overall average, the weakest sight-singers received a minimum of 8/10 for the marking quarter while the strongest sight-singer earned 10/10. Just 2 points separate these two types of students, yet they each understand what they’ve earned.
The students who make little to no effort and earn super-low scores receive the grade they earned. In the end, a student who did anything at all on the assignments will earn 2-4 points out of 10. Even this score does not destroy them; after all, they still improve from performing each assignment, and perhaps as they slowly improve, their motivation to work hard will also start to accelerate as well.
Sight Reading Factory for Homework lead to new grading structure
Over the past 4 years, I have switched to Sight Reading Factory, and modified my approach to a 4 point scoring system. Students are given 10 tries to complete their weekly assignment. A student can earn 4/4 by either singing their exercise nearly perfectly or completing 10 attempts. A 3/4 means the student did not complete 10 attempts and gave a passable performance.